„Translating Health“: Cultures of Prevention and (Bio)Medicine in Europe after 1945, held from 23 to 25 May 2013 in Mainz

by Katharina Kreuder-Sonnen

I visited this conference to learn about processes of translation between different public health cultures. I was especially interested in encounters of Eastern and Western European biomedical concepts. The conference was organized by Antje Kampf, Jeannette Madarász-Lebenshagen (both Institute for the History, Theory and Ethics of Medicine, Mainz) and Donna Harsch (Department of History, Carnegie Mellon University). It took place from 23 to 25 May in Mainz.

The concept of translation has long moved beyond the textual and linguistic level to become a basic analytical category for the study of heterogeneous but interrelated cultural phenomena. The “translational turn” in the study of culture has been greatly influenced by post colonial theory. It stresses the complexity of cultural encounters trying to understand them as multiple layers of mutual translational work. Translation as transformation serves as a buzz phrase in this context. The conference organizers followed that road when asking to overcome concepts of a unidirectional dissemination of knowledge but to think of the history of prevention and (bio)medicine as the “integrated” product of travelling concepts.
In Mainz, this translational approach from the field of cultural studies met with notions of translation long established in the history of science and medicine: Speakers referred to Bruno Latour’s and Michel Callon’s Sociology of Translation as well as to Ludwik Fleck. Therefore, the conference was marked by a multitude of translational approaches and repeatedly brought up the question of what this term actually means for historians of science and medicine.

This problem was discussed intensively especially in a panel about “translational medicine” which addressed the well-known complex relationship between bench and bedside. The notion of translational medicine evolved only recently in medical research and posed the question if translation has turned into an actor’s category rather than being an analytical one. Discussants of the roundtable at the end of the conference suggested several specific concepts other than cultural translation that could nevertheless help analyze settings of encounter and mediation: social movement theory and its notion of framing were named as well as boundary objects and practices.

In her highly inspiring keynote Ilana Löwy underlined that the devil of translational analysis is in the details: Only closely scrutinized cases can shed light on local differences in medical practices which then make translational work necessary.
Unfortunately, almost all talks concerning Central and Eastern Europe were cancelled, except for one about clinical drug trials in the Soviet Union. East and West Germany served as the most commonly used example for cultural encounters, US-American and European entanglements were discussed as well. Next to translations between socio-cultural systems and the aforementioned bench-to-bedside relationships processes of mediation among health experts were another topic of the conference. Moreover, an entire panel was devoted to translation and gender aspects. The empirical case studies presented stemmed from a wide range of topics that reached from health education and cancer research to artificial insemination in cattle breeding. Three days of stimulating discussion gave multiple insights into the promises and pitfalls of the translational approach in these various fields.

A complete conference report will soon be published on http://hsozkult.geschichte.hu-berlin.de/
The conference programme can be found here http://www.unimedizin-mainz.de/translating-health/programm.html


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